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The kinship of kneidlach

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Religion

Don’t you dare open the pot while they are boiling; use a kochleffel (traditional cooking spoon) and a bit of this and a bit of that; talk softly, and take off your shoes; play music while cooking.

There might be divergent opinions on the best method to use when making the perfect kneidlach, but one ingredient is always the same: the love with which this tradition is passed from generation to generation.

The first time Mish Berkowitz, now aged 81, made kneidlach was in 1961. She was newlywed, and got the recipe from a fellow teacher at King David school.

“[My colleague] promised to teach me to make the best kneidlach in the world, so she gave me the recipe, and I went home and tried it.”

What was her husband’s opinion of her first attempt? “Oh, he said he loved them! But we had been married for only three months,” she says with a smile.

Indeed, they must have been truly delicious, for they have been passed down four generations.

Berkowitz’s daughter, Pam Tauby, relishes this sense of continuity, recalling how as a little girl, she shared the privileged duty with her sister of being designated as the pot lifter for this prestigious preparation.

In her own married life, Tauby continued the kneidel tradition, albeit in slightly different circumstances.

“We swapped to the Chabad tradition of having matzah balls only on the last day of Pesach,” she says. This is a Chassidic “stringency, rather than a rule” that is related to the modern matzah manufacturing process.

The Chassidic practice is to ensure that the matzah doesn’t get wet in order to mitigate against pockets of flour within the matzah possibly turning it into chametz (foods not permitted on Pesach).

As such, their tradition is to make kneidlach on the eighth night, when the Torah mitzvah of keeping the seven days of the festival have been fulfilled. They also make a point of eating it during this last part of Pesach rather than afterwards to show unity with other Jewish people who do eat it for the whole chag. “It’s to show that we don’t think we are holier than you; we just have a different convention.”

Tauby, herself the mother of four daughters, says it took her sons-in-law, who didn’t come from a Chabad background, some adjustment to get used to this waiting period.

However, Brendan Moore, who is married to her daughter, Kayla, says it has actually brought a special dimension to the chag. “While it was strange when I first experienced it, actually now the build-up to the last day is like a beautiful send-off to Pesach,” he says.

Kayla says she started making the recipe only a few years ago, nervous to live up to the gravitas of its reputation. “It was this big moment! Here was something that has been passed down, and now I had better make it properly. The first time was perfect. I was so proud of myself, I even have a video of serving it!”

Now, the family revel in the newest generation’s engagement with the chag. “I love seeing Pesach through my children’s eyes. We see it in a whole new light,” says Kayla.

Indeed most recently, “Bobbie Mish” taught her recipe to two of her 14 great-grandchildren, Gilad, aged five, and Liya, three. The pair have self-styled themselves as “gourmet chefs” complete with personalised aprons and a homemade cooking vlog!

The final verdict after their latest episode featuring Bobbie and her kneidlach? A definitive “yummy” from Gili, and a big thumbs up from Liya.

When it comes to the great big customary cook-off of Pesach, Mary Kropman, 83, also revels in the involvement of younger generations, which in her case consists of 13 grandchildren and more than 30 great-grandchildren.

Following the tradition of her own mother, who arrived in South Africa as a young woman from Belarus, Kropman doesn’t just make her own kneidlach, but also homemade chrein (horseradish), ptcha (jellied meat), even wine.

“I love it when my grandchildren and now great-grandchildren come and help me. About six weeks ago, they helped me to make the wine and the great-grandchildren were laughing all the way through. It was great! We were four generations making it together.”

Her granddaughter, Rochie Isaacson, has warm memories of her time with Kropman. It’s an experience now passed down to her own children, who flourish under Kropman’s mentorship.

“Days before Pesach, I would go to bobba and wash hundreds of eggs to ‘clean’ them for Pesach,” reminisces Isaacson. “Thereafter, I would help bobba make about 200 kneidlach for the whole family. Bobba cooks with love and simcha. She blares Jewish music and dances around the kitchen preparing food for all of us to share and love.”

Monty Fleisher’s late mother, Mattie Halpern, certainly should be lauded for the most meticulous of methodologies in her culinary kneidel pursuits.

Fleisher’s daughter, Debbie, recalls how her father used to tell stories about his childhood memories of this Pesach preparation. “When my bobba used to make kneidlach, the whole house had to be quiet because [according to Mattie] any loud or sudden noise would cause the kneidlach to flop. So they all had to take off their shoes and tiptoe around the house. They also had to open and close doors very quietly.”

The ironic outcome of this military matzah-meal drill: the kneidlach turned out “flat”, confesses her son.

Meanwhile, for the late Sonia “Shoshki” Saven, making kneidlach was a craft for which she had her own magic implements: an imposing black pot and two gleaming kochleffels brought all the way from the Mir shtetl in what was then Belarus.

Today, etched with the wear and care of more than half a century of kneidlach cookery, these items retain pride of place in the households of the generations that follow.

Indeed, her granddaughter, Jessica Goodman, recites the exact instructions Shoshki would give about their use: “The bigger the pot, the bigger the kneidlach” and “never measure with a table spoon, only an authentic kochleffel will do.”

Even as a teenager, Goodman would ask her grandmother to show her the recipe. It was an elaborate internship, for “there were never any precise measurements. It was always ‘use this size spoon, use a little bit of this, a little bit of that; feel the right texture’. It wasn’t just ‘follow the recipe and hope for the best’. It was a very tactile experience.”

The result was always so delicious that after the seder, “I used to eat her kneidlach for breakfast because they were so good,” laughs Goodman.

Another highlight of Shoshki’s culinary creations is one that resonates with the Chabad tradition. On the last day of Pesach, she would make “milk kneidlach”, a tradition the family still follows. “We make them in butter and in a milk broth. It’s actually really delicious,” Goodman declares, adding a caveat that perhaps it’s “only something an Ashkenazi Jew could love!”

Ultimately, no matter the variation, the kneidel has its own symbolic power in celebrating a legacy.

As Goodman suggests, “If you had to make a Jewish grandmother’s love tangible; if you had to associate it with an object, it would be a kneidel ball. It’s so hamish and traditional.”

SIDE BAR RECIPE

Bobbie Mish’s flop-proof kneidlach recipe

1 egg

1 Tbsp schmaltz

Pinch salt

Matzah meal

Beat egg, schmaltz, and salt together. Add enough matzah meal so that you can just roll into balls. The mixture must be quite sticky. (You can place the mixture into the fridge and roll the kneidel balls when the mixture is cold and slightly hardened.)

Cook in salted boiling water for 20 minutes.

Each batch makes six kneidlach.

Secret tips from Bobbie Mish

•     “The water has to be boiling from before you even think of starting to make them.”

•     “Place the kneidlach in the pot one at a time, closing the lid in between.”

•     “Don’t touch that pot again for 20 minutes; don’t you dare!”

•     “Don’t put too many kneidlach in the pot; you need to give them room to swell.”

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Religion

Finding faith in the hippo

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This week’s parsha details the laws of kashrus. The Torah makes a brave statement by enumerating the one and only animal that has split hooves but doesn’t chew the cud. It’s a “brave” statement, because if a human being wrote the Torah, how would they know that the pig is the only one on the “face of the planet” with this characteristic?

Moses was born in Egypt, spent some time as a fugitive in Ethiopia, and died somewhere near modern-day Jordan. If we presume that he was the author of the Five Books without any divine inspiration, and he sucked the whole thing out of his left thumb, then how could he be so confident that there wasn’t a marsupial or wallaby in the furthermost corners of the planet that didn’t have at least one of these characteristics? This was almost 3 000 years before anyone even knew there was an Australia. If he was inventing the whole religion, he would have taken the more prudent course of being rather vague. He wouldn’t have blatantly listed the only four exceptions “from all the animals on the earth”.

With this great piece of Torah veracity in my mind, my faith was shaken when, on a trip to London’s Natural History Museum, (I know, it’s a pretty nerdy thing to do), I discovered that there was a hoofed animal, classified by zoology, that seemed to be an exception “overlooked” by the Torah – the hippo. It’s classified as an “ungulate”, a split-hoofed animal without a ruminant stomach that isn’t listed in the Torah as another exception!

I thought about this problem for a while, and then the solution came to me. Why should we allow zoology to dictate the classification of animals? The more I thought about it, the more I realised that hippos don’t have hooves like a pig or cow, they have toes (like camels). I know it’s more fancy to talk about ungulates, phylum, and genus. It even makes us look clever, but if we are really honest with ourselves, we won’t let zoological classifications stand in the way of our emunah in Hashem and His Torah.

Shabbat shalom

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Religion

Let’s start talking about Pesach

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For the past few weeks, my family and I have been doing something really special. We’ve been getting together every Sunday night, sitting around the table, and going through the Pesach Haggadah.

It’s just me, Gina, and our children – our eldest, Mordi, his wife Avigayil, and Levi, Shayna, and youngest Azi. We have supper together, and then we get stuck into the Haggadah, discussing, debating, sharing as a family, covering everything from the four sons, the four questions and the ten plagues, to matzah, maror, and the four cups of wine.

It has been a truly memorable experience. We started this family tradition a few months ago, setting aside the Sunday night slot to connect as a family and share Torah ideas. It’s an open forum, a space for every member of the family to express their thoughts, ideas, and opinions. We’ve covered the Rambam’s 13 Principles of Faith and the weekly parsha, and now, most recently, the Haggadah.

Going through the Haggadah, which tells the story of the Jewish people and goes to the very heart of who we are as Jews, has been particularly special. We’ve fine-tuned our understanding of the story, and gained so many new insights and ideas. Just as importantly, we’ve grown closer as a family, and feel more connected to each other and Hashem. Now, as we head towards Pesach, we all feel that this is going to be a dramatically different seder experience. Our mindset is different.

The Pesach seder is perhaps the formative Jewish experience. The seders we had as kids seem to stay with us. Even as we grow older, we recollect them fondly and vividly. It’s so much more than a ceremony, a procession of rituals, it’s the rich soil in which our families and our very Jewish identity are formed.

Of course, as we grow older, there’s the temptation, given how familiar the story is, to slip into autopilot on seder night. But if we prepare, we can avoid this and enter the seder charged with inspiration and filled with rich new perspectives. In doing so, we can transform it into an incredibly powerful spiritual and emotional experience that changes us, that truly frees us from our tired routines and habits and brings us closer to one another, to G-d, and to our true selves. A rebirth in the deepest sense.

That’s why I would like to call on all of us to start these meaningful family conversations in preparation for Pesach, to discuss the ideas and themes and get a deeper understanding of the seder itself. Of course, we need to prepare our homes – cleaning and cooking are incredibly important because they help us to fulfil all the mitzvot of this special chag and ensure we have a proper, kosher Pesach. But the seder, too, needs preparation, and the more we prepare for it, the greater the experience is going to be.

There’s something that can help you get the process started. My family and I were so excited and inspired by our Sunday night learning sessions, we decided to record our Haggadah discussions. We’ve turned these recordings into a special Pesach series, called The Goldstein Family Podcast, which you can access via my website or wherever you get your podcasts. The sessions have been cut and edited into eight episodes ranging from 10 to 30 minutes each to make them as accessible as possible.

There’s not much time left before Pesach, but I would like to encourage you to devote some time to preparing for the seder, and our podcast can be a good place to start. Even just a couple of hours can make all the difference to your seder.

Especially at this time, after a year of being battered by a pandemic, we need the healing, the meaning, and the deep inspiration of the seder more than ever – the message of faith in Hashem, connection to generations past, the sense of rootedness it gives us in an uncertain world.

Let’s take this opportunity to prepare so that we can connect with the ancient words of the Haggadah – with the great origin story of our people – in ways we’ve never done before.

Gina and I wish you all a chag kasher v’same’ach – a beautiful Pesach – and deeply meaningful, enriching seders.

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Religion

Is antisemitism good for the Jews?

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One of the traditional songs from the Pesach Haggadah which has become hugely popular in recent years is Vehi Sheamdah. An original version composed by Yonatan Razel was turned into a mega hit by Yaakov Shwekey, and was named Song of the Decade in Israel.

The passage in English reads, “And it is this that has stood by our fathers and us. For not just one alone [Pharaoh] has risen against us to destroy us, but in each and every generation they rise against us to destroy us and the holy one, blessed be He, saves us from their hand!”

What is meant by the opening words, “vehi” as in “it is this that has stood by us”? What does “this” refer to? The simple meaning seems to be that it follows on the previous paragraph in the Haggadah where we read, “Blessed is He who keeps His promise to Israel.”

It refers to G-d’s promise to redeem the Children of Israel from Egyptian exile. According to commentary, it also refers to G-d’s ongoing promise to redeem us from all our exile and persecution, including the final redemption at the end of days.

This promise has sustained the Jewish people throughout all the dark and difficult days of our long and tortuous history. We have always believed and trusted in G-d’s promise that, in the end, it would all come right.

That’s the simple meaning. But a few years ago, I had a brain wave of a rather alternative interpretation. Later, I was gratified to see the same idea in the writings of earlier rabbis much more learned than I.

What occurred to me was that the Haggadah may have been giving us another message as well. The very fact that “in every generation they rise against us to destroy us” is itself what has stood by us and given us the strength to persevere. Antisemitism, and the fact that in spite of all the existential threats we as a people have suffered, we have survived, all bearing testimony to the Almighty’s watchful eye which continues to guide us through our special providential mission on earth.

Jews and non-Jews alike have marvelled at our miraculous survival. Over 300 years ago, King Louis XIV of France asked the philosopher, Pascal, to give him proof of the existence of G-d. Pascal famously replied, “Why the Jews, your majesty, the Jews!”

Our tiny nation’s survival while all the greatest empires of the world have come and gone remains powerful confirmation that there is a higher power ensuring our continuity and destiny.

Indeed, there is a strong argument to suggest that antisemitism has been good for the Jews. The French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, made that point in his book Anti-Semite & Jew. History records that under regimes that persecuted us, we remained steadfastly Jewish, whereas under more enlightened, liberal forms of government, we became comfortable in our newfound freedom, gradually embracing a welcoming but dominant culture and forfeiting much of our own.

Back in the early 19th century, Napoleon was conquering Europe and promising liberty and equality for all. When he squared up against Russia, many Jewish leaders sided with him, hoping he would finally bring an end to Czarist persecution and extend to Russian Jewry full civil rights. However, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad, thought differently. He actively opposed Napoleon, and even had his Chassidim assist in intelligence gathering for the Russian army.

When his colleagues challenged him and questioned his apparent lack of concern for the well-being of his own people, he argued that while Napoleon might be good for the Jews materially, his victory would result in spiritual disaster. Tragically, the record proves him correct. Minus the Little Emperor, Russian Jews remained staunchly Jewish, while French Jewry virtually vanished.

How many Jewish Rothschilds are left in the world? G-d knows we could have used them. Most of French Jewry today hails from North Africa. The originals are few and far between.

And the American experience confirms beyond a shadow of a doubt that freedom, democracy, and equal rights, while wonderful blessings for Jews for which we should be eternally grateful, also present a profound challenge to our Jewish identity and way of life. In the melting pot of the United States, Jews have integrated so successfully, they are virtually disappearing!

Back in the 1970s, when I was working with Jewish university students, we were struggling to break through a wall of icy indifference towards Judaism. It was so frustrating, that my colleagues and I even considered going onto campus in the dead of night to paint a few swastikas on the student union building!

Maybe that would jolt them out of their apathy. Of course, we never actually did it, but the fact that the thought crossed our minds demonstrates how external threats have a way of making Jews bristle with pride and righteous indignation.

We see it today as well. Outside many shuls around the world, you will find young men and women who volunteer to do security duty. Many of them are never seen inside the shuls they protect. Going to shul and praying isn’t their thing. But when enemies of Israel threaten Jews, these brave young people respond as loyal, committed Jews.

It appears that as repugnant as antisemitism may be, in a strange, perverse sort of way it may have contributed to the stubborn determination of Jews over many generations to stand up for their convictions and live by the principles of our faith no matter what.

So, when you sing Vehi Sheamdah at your Pesach Seder this year, instead of bemoaning our enemies’ hatred for us, find the positive side. Vehi – this very hostility and the never-ending attempt at our annihilation – has only served to strengthen our resolve to remain steadfastly Jewish. Indeed, it has stood us well!

  • Rabbi Yossy Goldman is the rabbi at Sydenham Shul, and the president of the South African Rabbinical Association.

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